The Guide #7: the Marvel trap – how superhero movies cage the stars

In April, with her film Nomadland, Chloé Zhao claimed a much-coveted double victory: Best Picture and Best Director gongs at the Academy Awards. It’s a dual accolade that puts the film-maker in some pretty lofty company – Wilder, Spielberg, Bigelow, the Coens – and you might assume would bring with it a degree of creative freedom. Might Zhao, head off into the wilds of Montana to film Leonardo DiCaprio nearly getting eaten by a bear like Birdman director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu did with his best picture/best director follow-up, The Revenant?

No, not quite. Zhao’s follow up release to Nomadland is a Marvel movie. The Eternals, out now in cinemas, sees a group of immortal superheroes unite to smash the living daylights out of their similarly superpowered enemies, the Deviants. Frances McDormand ambling round South Dakota in an RV it is not.

A noisy, CGI-laden superhero movie might feel like a strange fit for Zhao, but she is far from the first rising star to be plucked from the world of indie film by Marvel. Earlier this year we’ve had Cate Shortland (Lore, Berlin Syndrome) directing Black Widow, while Ryan Coogler (Black Panther), directing duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Captain Marvel), and even Taiki Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok) were all film-makers associated with smaller, more personal fare before entering the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

For these film-makers, the lure of the MCU is more than just financial. There’s the chance to work on a far bigger canvas than they’re used to, and a major studio credit to burnish their filmographies. Marvel, meanwhile, get to bask in the warm glow of indie credibility and – crucially – have talented, not-yet-big-name directors on their books.

Marvel have adopted a similar approach in the hoovering up of acting talent. Rather than seek out whopping great names to play their biggest characters, they have often aimed for promising stars with the scope to join the A-list: take Chrises Evans (Captain America), Hemsworth (Thor) and Pratt (Star-Lord), or Elizabeth Olsen (Wanda Maximoff). Again for these actors the benefits are clear: big paydays (including, in some cases a share of box office windfalls), huge exposure and ultimately guaranteed megastar status.

There is of course a catch, though: once you’re in, you’re in. Marvel’s sprawling, interlocking, serialised cinematic universe requires its superheroes to pop up in each other’s films, meaning that playing a character is often a more time-consuming gig than other film franchises – and of course now there is an entire Marvel TV series roster for the talent to appear in too. The multi-feature deals Marvel has negotiated with its stars are, by now, common knowledge, in some case tying them up for as many as 10 films. MCU kingpin Kevin Feige has said that these deals are now no longer the norm for Marvel but even if that is the case, it’s hard to imagine anyone turning down a subsidiary of the biggest entertainment company in the world when it comes knocking.

Directors, not having to don capes and armour as recurring characters, aren’t quite as locked in as the acting talent, but several of them – notably the Russo Brothers and Waititi – have also signed up for a repeat Marvel prescription. Is that necessarily a problem? Some might argue that this is merely an updating of Martin Scorsese’s “One for them, one for me” approach, allowing directors the clout to go and make more personal or daring movies. Yet the effort it takes to put together a Marvel movie means the time available for making other movies has surely dwindled – not to mention the fact that other studios are leaning into blockbusters at the expense of smaller productions. “One for them, one for me” might have just become “all for them”.

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